3 Exercises to Strengthen your Horse’s Shoulder Muscles

3 Exercises to Strengthen your Horse’s Shoulder Muscles

Now that we’ve worked on several muscles in our horse’s body, our horse looks like it drank one too many protein shake! But we still have one thing to work on: building up shoulder muscles! 😊


Shoulder muscles or foreleg muscles? 🧐

What exactly are we talking about? The shoulder, the foreleg or the forehand? It’s important to be accurate because we have a tendency to use these words to talk of another. Let’s clear things up 🔎

1️⃣ Forehand

When we started riding and learned the horse’s anatomy, we divided the horse in 3 parts: forehand, body, and hindquarters.

The forehand regroups the head, the neck and the foreleg. When we talk about forehand muscles, we talk about the neck and the foreleg.

⚠️ Despite it being located on the forehand, the chest belongs to the horse’s trunk.

shoulder muscles horse body partd

2️⃣ Foreleg

The foreleg doesn’t start below the elbow. It’s not just the leg. It also includes the scapula (shoulder blade) and the arm.

If we list the different bones of the foreleg, we have:

  • the scapula (shoulder blade)
  • the humerus (arm)
  • the radius and the ulna (forearm)
  • the carpal bone (knee)
  • the metacarpal bone (cannon bone)
  • the finger (pastern + foot)

shoulder muscles foreleg

3️⃣ Shoulder

Lastly, the shoulder corresponds to the articulation between the scapula and the humerus.

If this was strictly about shoulder muscles, we would then only be talking about the muscles designed to move the scapulo-humeral articulation.

shoulder muscles foreleg forehand

Rather, we’re going to be talking about foreleg muscles and more specifically about the upper part of the foreleg.

The 4 foreleg muscle categories 👉

The foreleg can be divided in 4 big categories:

  • muscles that move the whole leg
  • shoulder muscles
  • arm muscles
  • forearm muscles

Let’s observe these categories in details and figure out how to build up muscles in them.

✅ Muscles that move the whole leg

These muscles are the protraction and propulsion muscles.The protraction is the moment of the stride during which the horse stretches its leg forward to gain some ground. The muscles used in this phase belong to the neck because they are stretched between the head and the humerus or between the cervical vertebrae and the scapula. We can easily distinguish the brachiocephalic muscle located at the lower part of the neck that enlarges when your horse scratches the ground 😅.

Ok you can’t see too well but it’s still funny 😉

The propulsion muscles will drag the lag backwards and in doing so propulse the body forward. They are very powerful and pretty broad. We can count amongst them the ascending pectoral.

shoulder muscles protraction

During the protraction and the propulsion, other muscles will play their parts as well. They are specific muscles from other regions. Let’s see which ones.

✅ Shoulder muscles

They are the ones who will put the articulation between the scapula and the humerus in flexion and extension.

We will talk about 3 of them: the supraspinatus muscle which will participate to the protraction by placing the shoulder in extension and preventing the articulation from bending when the foot touches the ground, the infraspinatus muscle and the deltoid muscle which will bend the articulation, notably during the gait’s suspension phase.

The deltoid and infraspinatus muscles also are abductor muscles, which means they will pull the leg to the outside!

shoulder muscles supraspinatus

✅ Arm Muscles

They are the ones we think about when we try to imagine a horse with a well-muscled shoulder.

Their action will be to open or close the elbow, and in doing so to bend or extend the forearm over the arm.

A notable muscle is the triceps brachii which is the very voluminous muscle above the elbow. It functions as an extensor and helps a lot during the propulsion.
It’s antagonist is, as it is for us, the biceps brachial which closes the elbow.

shoulder muscles biceps brachii

✅ Forearm muscles

The are the ones who control the movements till the end of the foot thanks to their long tendons ending on the cannon or in the foot.
The cranial antebrachium
 are extensors that contribute to the protraction. The caudal antebrachium however are flexors and contribute to the suspension phase or the “touching the ground” phase to maintain the fetlock.

shoulder muscles caudal cranial antebrachial

Which exercises to build up shoulder muscles?

(or rather, the foreleg 😉)

You understood from the descriptions, we’re going to play with the leg’s flexion and extension amplification to build up muscles (so on protraction and propulsion), but also on abduction and adduction!

Exercise #1 – Canter hacks with a sloped ground! 🐎🏔

If eventing horses have such impressive forehand muscles, it’s in part thanks to this.

Going at canter on a bigger range than in an arena allows the horse to work on its protraction muscles: they have to reach further, and the propulsion muscles have to push the horse hard enough to keep the same speed.

A sloped ground will accentuate these impacts. Propulsion is harder uphill, and the triceps brachii, the ascending pectoral or the latissimus dorsi have to work harder. Downhill, the extensor muscles works in eccentric contraction, in opposition to the movement.

📚 Read more: 5 jumping exercises for muscle reinforcement

By the way, if you have uphill or downhill banks at your stables, it’s the perfect time to work on eccentric contractions!

shoulder muscles exercise canter

Exercise #2 – Raised ground poles

Raised ground poles at each gait will allow the horse to exaggerate its normal leg movement during the stride.

The foreleg will go further backwards, making the infraspinatus muscle, the triceps brachii and the antebrachial caudal muscles work harder. They bend more and have to go further forward, making the brachiocephalic, the biceps brachii, the supraspinous and the antebrachial cranial muscles work.

shoulder muscles raised ground poles

It’s a really good routine exercise to execute without moderation!


Exercise #3 – Lateral work 🦀

Lastly, lateral work is perefect to work on adduction (pulling the leg inwards) and the abduction (spreading the leg outward). These exercises then allow the infraspinatus and the deltoid to develop.

shoulder muscles lateral work

Every lateral movement makes a different muscle work, but they are all good to use for a complete workout!

Always the same exercises!

Now that you’ve read a few articles on this blog you’ll notice these exercises come back often. As do backwards walk, bounce jumps or jumps at walk. You might wonder why? Because they are simply perfect to build muscle in the entire body! And if your horse has no physical issue to execute them, don’t hesitate to do them on a regular basis! You’ll see the advantages quickly 💪🏻


See you soon for another article,
Camille Saute,
R&D leader at Equisense

Denoix, J.-M. (2014). Biomécanique et gymnastique du cheval. Paris, France: Vigot.

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Camille Saute
I have studied engineering and I've always been full of curiosity. Since I got to know many veterinarians and scientists, the way I treat my mare and our training have completely changed. That's why I really want to share what I've learned with you. 🙂

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